Rattay saved the day and season (for now)

Three weeks ago, Tim Rattay wasn't healthy enough to play and he couldn't even throw without pain-blocking injections. Now he's the NFC offensive player of the week, a strong indication things finally are falling into place for the fifth-year quarterback after five months of injuries and turmoil.

It's about time, as Rattay will be the first to tell you.

"Hopefully, it will stay like that and we can keep this thing going," Rattay said Wednesday after earning the first NFC honor of his career.

Rattay knows better than to ask for too much, particularly after what he's been through with groin and arm injuries this spring and summer, followed by a painful shoulder separation in the second quarter of the season opener. That setback, which kept him out of the next two games, appeared to be another unmistakable sign that Rattay was destined to struggle throughout 2004 along with the rest of San Francisco teammates.

But Rattay's a fighter. He's also an optimist. As the season began to crumble around him, he never lost the faith.

He certainly didn't lose faith last week against the Arizona Cardinals, when the 49ers were staring at a 28-12 deficit with less than eight minutes remaining. It was at that point that Rattay changed both the course and scope of San Francisco's season, leading the Niners on two long but quick touchdown drives, and finishing both with two-point conversion passes to erase the 16-point deficit and force overtime.

Once there, Rattay led the Niners on yet another drive that produced Todd Peterson's game-ending field goal. When Peterson's kick split the uprights, it was the first time the Niners had held a lead in more than three weeks.

It's not an overstatement to say that Rattay saved not only the day but also the season, because nobody else on the San Francisco sideline appeared ready to step up. And, frankly, Rattay had to be the guy who was going to do it, because the only way the Niners had a chance was to pass their way down the field in a hurry.

Rattay answered a lot of questions about his toughness and poise, because he was sacked five times before finally getting some adequate protection in the fourth quarter. Given time and placed in his passing element, Rattay sliced the Arizona defense apart.

The true indication that Rattay finally was all the way back came on his 23-yard touchdown strike to Brandon Lloyd that brought the Niners within two points with a minute to play.

That was vintage Rattay – a perfectly-placed missile that reached its target on time and in a spot where only Lloyd, who was covered closely on the play, could get it. That was a throw not many NFL quarterbacks can make, and it's a throw Rattay probably couldn't have made even a week ago while he still was recovering from his shoulder problems.

He can make it now.

And that gives the Niners, finally, the triggerman they need to get their struggling offense going. With Rattay able to see the field so well and throw to so many targets, the 49ers suddenly can become dangerous to opponents on offense again because – as Eric Johnson has illustrated so well the past two weeks – you can't double-cover all of Rattay's options.

Maybe the offense's breakout game – the 448 yards produced against Arizona easily was a season high – will create some more room for the running game, which needs to follow Rattay's lead and crank into gear for the Niners to truly right a season that appeared so lost until last week's fourth-quarter heroics.

To be sure, the Niners can't expect to pass 57 times again and be successful – or 64 times if you take into consideration the five times Rattay was sacked and the two times he scrambled out of the pocket. Those seven plays started as passes, too.

But under those conditions last week, Rattay put his name in the record book (with 38 completions). And he put San Francisco in the win column. The rest of the NFC took notice Wednesday, and now the Niners need to carry over what Rattay has established to their bye week and beyond.

"We're hoping that the momentum that we got from this game can carry over to (the New York) game and throughout the season," Rattay said.

It's a start, and it's because of Rattay.

Now the Niners have to pick him up like Rattay picked them up at their lowest moment last week. He has been there a few times himself already this year, and – as he so aptly demonstrated when all appeared lost against Arizona – there's nowhere to go but up.

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